The more students know about the processes by which they learn best, the more they can harness those processes to their advantage. It is useful to build in some study-skills discussion right at the beginning of your programme, alongside the first bits of learning. Students will then see that you’re interested in helping them find out not only what to learn, but also how best to go about it. The following ideas can be used to help students take ownership of some key steps in the ways they learn:

Start with their achievements: Ask your students to think of something they’re good at, and to jot it down.

Get them thinking about how they have already achieved things: For example, ask them to write down a few words explaining how they became good at whatever it was.

Get them reflecting on how they learned things well: Help them compare their responses to the previous two questions. For example, most students will have used words such as ‘doing it’, ‘practice’, ‘repetition’, ‘trial and error’, ‘getting it wrong at first’. Use these ideas to help them see that most learning is done in an active way. Remind them how useful it can be to learn by making mistakes, and how therefore it is useful to regard mistakes as valuable learning experiences.

Help them see that ‘learning’ is down to them: We can’t do it for them! Comment on how rarely people declare that they became good at something simply by ‘being taught’ or ‘being shown how’, and so on. From this, draw out the need for students to take an active part in the various teaching-learning situations they encounter, rather than sitting passively ‘being taught and hoping it will stick’.

Ask students to think of something they feel good about: Ask them (for example) to identify a personal attribute or quality about which they feel a sense of pride, and then to jot it down. Next, ask them to write down a few words explaining upon what basis they feel good about whatever they wrote down in answer to the previous question. In other words, ask them, ‘Upon what evidence do you have this positive feeling?’

Help students to realise how important feedback can be: By far the most frequent answers to ‘how do you know feel good about this?’ include phrases such as ‘other people’s reactions’, ‘feedback from other people’, ‘the expressions on people’s faces’, ‘people come back to me for help’, and so on. In other words, the keys to positive feelings tend to be feedback, and other people. This can be a useful way of helping students develop a healthy ‘thirst for feedback’ rather than trying to hide from situations where other people see how they’re doing.

Remind students that studying is not a completely separate part of their lives: The same processes that lead to becoming good at anything in life also apply to successful studying. Similarly, the same processes that lead to positive feelings about anything in life also apply to developing positive feelings about studying.

Help students to learn from disasters as well as triumphs: Ask them to think of some learning experience that went wrong, and to write down a few words about what happened to make it an unsuccessful learning experience.

Help them to compare the causes of poor learning experiences: Common causes relate to a lack of feedback (therefore lack of positive feelings) and to lack of opportunity to practise (therefore a lack of ‘learning by doing’). Other causes are lack of motivation – in other words, no deep wish to succeed – or a lack of time to make sense of it all, or no time to reflect.

Highlight for your students the main factors underpinning successful (and enjoyable) learning: These are:

  • wanting to learn – a sense of purpose;
  • needing to learn – being clear about their targets and the standards to aim for, knowing why things are important;
  • learning by doing – practice, experimentation, repetition, trial and error;
  • feedback – from each other, from tutors, from handouts, from Web sources, all leading to positive feeling about what has been learned;
  • making sense of what has been learned – getting their heads round it, ‘digesting’ it, putting it into perspective.

It can be useful to keep reminding students of the importance of all these factors as they continue into your programme, and helping them work out ways of taking ownership of the importance of these factors as they develop their learning processes in the context of the content of your programme.